Answering the Call

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It seemed Graeme had been wrong.  The saloon was deserted.  Overturned chairs lay abandoned on the floor.  An acrid cigar was still smouldering in a tin ashtray.  The lingering sawdust highlighted the wafting smoke as it trickled towards the rafters.

Henry burst through the doors.  “You all right?”  he demanded, clasping Graeme’s shoulder.

He nodded.  “We’re fine.  Would you please check on Mr. Ping and the horses, Henry?”  Maybe that was what had drawn the Outlaw to Queenstown in the first place.  Maybe he’d come to hijack the train.

“Sure thing, Graeme,” he said, and headed back through the swinging doors.

“I ‘ope they’re not all hiding in the cellar,” Woodhouse grumbled.  “Place was full.”  He fished around behind the bar, and came up with a small screwdriver.  Carefully he unfastened the prosthetic shotgun to replace it with a cleverly-fashioned brass mechanical hand.  The servos whined and the metal tinkled against the glass as he threw a mug under a tap and drew a draught.  He slapped this down this in front of Graeme.  One for Piper followed.  The air was so still that Graeme could hear the foam fizzing.  “’E’ll ‘ave to buy ‘is own,” the barkeep informed them, jerking a brass thumb in Henry’s direction as he came back in.  “’E didn’t help defend me bar.”

“They’re fine,” Henry assured Graeme with no more than a nod in the barkeep’s direction.  “I told the engineer he might want get rollin’ early.”

Graeme nodded.  That was probably a good idea.  Then no matter how this ended, the horses would be safe.  From the trough just outside, Lightning whickered his approval.

Woodhouse wrinkled up his nose.  “An’ who asked ‘is opinion?” he grumbled.

“You ain’t from around here, are you?” observed Graeme with a wry smile.  Obviously, since he didn’t understand about Gunslinger horses.

“I’m from overseas,” the barkeeper replied.  “Came over to make me fortune.  Only it seems like fortune made me.  Won this bar in a card game just last week.  Came to see if I could make it go.”  He shook his head.  “If someone’d told me about the wildlife, never would ‘ave come. You hear stories about these Desperadoes, but you never ‘spect to see one.”  He poured himself a draught as well.

“They’re rare,” Piper affirmed.  “You just had a stroke of bad luck.  And I guess so did we.”  Her expression was glum.

Henry put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.  “Odds might not be so bad as we think.”

“Why not, Uncle Henry?”

Henry’s still-sharp eyes narrowed.  “The Powers got a way of gettin’ even when someone don’t follow the Code of the Gun.”

Graeme considered this.  Henry was probably right.  You couldn’t count on it, but ill luck and mischance followed those who broke the rules, and everyone knew it.  Could be the Desperado knew he’d already tempted Fate too much by gunning an Apprentice down in cold blood.  Could be that was why he hadn’t killed them.

“How long since he rode into town?”  Graeme passed the stein to Henry and fumbled in his purse for his money.  Woodhouse let out an exasperated sigh and thumped another beer down in front of him.  He waved away Graeme’s coin impatiently.  “Well, thank you again.” The Apprentice nodded, and he gulped back a swallow of yeasty liquid gold and frothing head.  It was cold and soothing on his parched and dusty throat.  It almost chased away the pattering piece of his heart he found there.

“’Bout a week ago.  But the locals say they’ve seen him before.”  The barkeeper sat back and studied him with piercing grey eyes that entirely belied the untidy mop of reddish hair escaping the newsboy cap.  “So,” he said after a long moment, “what in all the worlds possessed you to pick a fight with that dodgy tosser?”

Graeme chuckled despite himself.  The adrenaline was wearing off now and he found that the hand that clutched his beer was vibrating.  “I didn’t pick a fight.  He did.  I just answered the call.”

“Why?”

Piper looked at him.  “I’d like to know that too,” she said in a steady voice that put his own to shame.

He contemplated the depths of his beer for a long moment.  “Well, there ain’t no one else, is there?” he finally answered. “I’m a Gunslinger’s Apprentice.”  He met his sister’s eyes and held them fast.  “What else could I do?”

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